How to Make Confident Life Decisions by Aligning With Your Purpose
Your best friend is going to grad school, and you feel that you should too, but you don’t know what to study. You don’t feel fulfilled in your job, but don’t know where to go next for a change. You’ve considered taking a few years off to stay home with your children, but you’re not sure if this is the right choice. Your boyfriend asked you to move away with him to another country, but you’re not sure if you should uproot yourself from where you’ve grown up…
The need to make important life decisions effectively exposes the need for us to get in touch with our values, because decisions are only truly effective when they are authentically aligned with what we deeply care about. They may be difficult decisions that would require hard work (e.g. building a business), or heartbreak (e.g. a breakup), but they are decisions that you can be at peace with.
There are many ways to discover our values. For example:
- Take time to reflect. Quiet your mind so that you can listen to your inner voice more clearly.
- Take stock of important accomplishments and analyze what has enabled you to achieve them
- Notice who has inspired you in your journey and what qualities about them are inspiring
- Recall situations that tend to upset you and discover the common themes. The opposite of those themes could be your values as they are “violated” in these upsetting situations.
Today we will talk about using a different, more future and other-oriented angle to learn about values — discovering your purpose.
What is Purpose?
A person’s purpose describes a commitment that is enduring and personally meaningful¹. Purpose is like “the anchor we throw to pull us to our future²”. It is also a process of putting one’s meaning into action and an expression of one’s values.
One general consensus among psychologists about purpose is that purpose transcends the self¹, i.e. it drives us to engage with some aspect of the world beyond ourselves. For example, aiming to make partner in your firm in 10 years because it is a sign of your excellence at your work is a perfectly acceptable goal but not a purpose. On the other hand, wanting to influence the cultural change in your industry could be one. Purpose provides a direction rather than the fixed endpoint of achieving a particular rank in an organization.
What Purpose is Not
Now that you know the definition of purpose, do you find the term alienating or intimidating because it sounds so idealistic or “high and mighty”? You are not alone. Many often mistake that purpose has to be a big cause (e.g. eradicating poverty) and as a result decide not to bother because pursuing one’s purpose seems so out of reach.
But the truth is, purpose does not need to be grandiose. Small acts that make a difference in others’ lives can be enough to make work meaningful and motivating. A study by Yale professor, Amy Wrzesniewski, reveals that hospital janitors who have a “calling”, i.e. they derive a sense of purpose from their work, tend to be more satisfied. They see their work as more than cleaning. Rather, they see it as part of their patients’ healing process. Helping their patients heal by doing small things such as joking with them, calming them down, or helping their family members, are their ways of fulfilling their purpose.
A Case for Purpose
The great thing about purpose is that it serves as a great organizing force for our decision-making. That’s why organizations have purposes, too. They often manifest themselves as mission statements. Starbucks’ mission is “to inspire and nurture the human spirit — one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time”. Hotel group Fairmont’s mission statement is “turning moments into memories for our guests”.
Guiding your life’s activities with your purpose allows you to try multiple paths. Using the example earlier, if your purpose is to influence cultural change in your industry, you could do so by working hard to make partner so that your opinions are more influential. You can also join your industry’s professional association and play roles where your voice could be heard.
From a career perspective, having a purpose can inspire you on what direction to take if you plan to reinvent your career. One benefit of constantly checking in to align your career choices with your purpose is that the experience you gain from one role can often prepare you well for the next if they both serve the same purpose.
Life is essentially an obstacle course. This could be especially true if we want to try things that are out of our comfort zone. Having a purpose can help you persevere because it reflects your values and can therefore motivate you intrinsically. Research by psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, most known for their Self-Determination Theory, found that intrinsic motivation can create behaviour change that is more sustainable and consolidated into an individual’s identity, while change motivated by extrinsic motivation (e.g. money, pressure from others) can be short-lived³. In his popular book, Drive, Daniel Pink draws on four decades of scientific research on human motivation and also concludes that purpose, together with autonomy and mastery, are the three elements of true motivation.
How to Discover Your Purpose
Now that you know enough about purpose, here is a list of things you can do to launch your journey of discovery.
Craft Your Life Story
As mentioned earlier, our purpose is a commitment that is meaningful to us. But how do we identify what’s meaningful to us? One way is through examining our life stories. Humans are creatures of stories. Stories have been studied in the field of narratology (e.g. The Hero’s Journey) and their powerful impact on human perception has informed many fields (e.g. narrative career counselling, narrative psychotherapy). The process of crafting our life stories invites us to examine our lives’ defining moments, our preferences, and the people who have influenced us. This process helps us discover what is important to us, or our values.
After you examine your past, it is important to ask yourself how you want the next chapter of your story to unfold. So pretend for a minute that you are the biographer for yourself. Do you want your protagonist to be one who seeks help from their mentors, overcomes their fears and eventually makes a triumphant return? What’s the vision you have for your protagonist? If you are interested in exploring life storytelling and how the way we “arrange our plots” affects our well-being, check out this well-informed article from The Atlantic.
Cultivate Your Interests
According to famous developmental psychologist Bill Damon, a sense of purpose can be cultivated from interests⁴. Damon’s research found that “[e]veryone has a spark” and that spark can be the genesis of one’s purpose.
Ask yourself: What kinds of things often capture your attention? What about them is so fascinating to you? What’s something in this world, or in your community, that you really hope can be changed?
If you take the time to engage in some free-writing about your life story as suggested in the section above, the answers to these questions may come easily to you.
Expand Your Life Experience
If you have spent most of your life within a relatively small circle (e.g. doing similar types of jobs, hanging out with the same types of friends), you may consider expanding your life experience as a way to explore the interests identified above and gain more insight about what your purpose is.
For example, if you have been curious about what it is like to work as a counsellor, or if you know that you like working with children, volunteer for the Kids Help Phone to be a crisis responder. If you have been bullied as a child, you can engage in activities that foster kindness in schools or help bullied kids become more assertive.
New experiences can offer you new perspectives and inspiration, and may well be the “oxygen” needed to turn the “spark” into a “flame”. As you start to expose yourself to new experiences, you’d start to realize what you like, what you don’t like, how you interact with others, and meet people who can give you feedback, and eventually have more clarity about your life direction as time goes by.
Pulling it Together
Having a sense of our values and purpose is crucial to building a solid foundation for our self-confidence and the decisions we make. As our identity crystalizes in front of us, we can start to appreciate our uniqueness more, and compare ourselves with others less, because we now know that we have our purpose to count on as a compass to guide our journey.
¹Bronk, K. C. (2011). The role of purpose in life in healthy identity formation: A grounded model. New Directions for Youth Development, 2011(132), 31–44. doi:10.1002/yd.426
²Steger, M. F., Sheline, K., Merriman, L., & Kashdan, T. B. (2013). Using the science of meaning to invigorate values-congruent, purpose-driven action. In T. B. Kashdan & J. Ciarrochi (Eds.), Mindfulness, acceptance, and positive psychology: The seven foundations of well-being (pp. 240–266). Context Press.
³Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1985). Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behavior. Springer. doi:10.1007/978–1–4899–2271–7
⁴Damon, W., Menon, J., & Bronk, K. C. (2003). The development of purpose during adolescence. Applied Developmental Science, 7(3), 119–128.